Middle East for dummies

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies

What do Islamic dictatorships like Libya and Iran, authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, and kingdoms like Bahrain have in common? Not much, except their people hate their governments.

But you’d never grasp that simple fact from listening to either the president of the United States or the president of Iran.

According the latter, what’s happening in the Middle East is a “final move” — and a divinely-guided one at that. “We are in the middle of a global revolution managed by The Dear [12th Imam],” Ahmadinejad has declared. “A great awakening is unfolding. One can witness the hand of the imam in managing it.”

Well if that’s true, the 12th Imam must not be too thrilled with the regime in Tehran. Opponents of the Iranian regime have taken to the streets, as irate as the crowds in Tahrir Square. And the regime’s hysterical cries to execute opposition figures betrays a certain lack of faith that the awakening crowds are easily manageable.

But President Obama’s “cry for freedom” speech last week made little more sense than an Ahmadinejad rant. He spoke of the downfall of Mubarak as though he wanted to be named top cheerleader for freedom, yet was conspicuously silent on the most courageous call for Middle Eastern freedom in recent memory: the 2009 election protests in Iran.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear what kind of freedom Egypt’s 80 million people want, much less what they will end up getting.

Certainly most of them want greater economic freedom, if only because most want a job, a decent living, and bearable food prices. Mubarak’s much-publicized economic reforms never made the transition from paper to reality. His regime “failed to produce any tangible improvements for many young people under the age of 30, who have been more eager to pursue greater economic freedom,” notes the Heritage Foundation’s Anthony Kim, an expert on international trade and economics. “Even worse,” Kim reports, “on the two indicators that are the most powerful predictors of success for developing economies — property rights and corruption — Egypt scores far below world averages. Both indicators have shown sharp declines in recent years.”

What fueled the turmoil in Egypt? Primarily, it was the economy, stupid.

Bahrain is a different situation, altogether. That country ranks in the top 10 of the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. But when it comes to political liberties, Bahrain is a basket case. Freedom House ranks the country as “not free,” and notes that its score has been heading in the wrong direction. Moreover, Freedom House reports, during the last year, “tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and the ruling Sunni minority intensified.” In short, the government in Bahrain is finding that “money can’t buy you love.”

Here’s the bottom line. All these countries have problems — big problems, multiple problems and very much different problems. And none of them is going to be fixed in a New York minute. There is no “easy button” to solve any of the region’s problems — least of all the Israel-Palestine situation.

That’s why the White House would be well-advised to stop temporizing with high-sounding but largely irrelevant speeches and start focusing on the region’s most important problem first. Fortunately, it’s also the problem we can do the most about.

The gravest problem in the Middle East is, in a word, Iran. It pays for terrorism. It invests in destabilizing other nations. It yearns to be a nuclear power. And it’s second to none at oppressing its own people. President Obama celebrates liberation in the Middle East with a speech. President Ahmadinejad celebrates it by sending two warships to the Suez Canal — an action calculated to intimidate Israel, put Egypt’s new leadership on the spot, and thumb his nose at the US.

A recent Heritage Foundation study concluded that once Iran goes nuclear, it will pose a far more dangerous, difficult and costly threat to American interests. The U.S. would be far better off dealing with the restive regime now, rather than wait for it to become an atomic power.

What’s needed is an American game plan to bring freedom to Iran. That starts with ratcheting up sanctions on Iran. And Target One of that plan should be Iran’s energy sector. Iran’s Islamist regime has exploited Iran’s huge energy resources to fuel a military buildup, build an extensive nuclear weapons program, maintain its power, and export its Shia Islamic revolution. The U.S. can do a lot more to take the oil weapons out of the regime’s hands.

It’s that simple, really. Taking down Tehran won’t turn the Middle East into a land of milk and honey. But it will go a long way toward giving freedoms — both economic and political — a chance to advance throughout the region.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.